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CES 2017: Talk to the Fridge (and either Amazon Alexa or Google might answer back)

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For years now, the consumer electronics industry has been trying to sell slightly intelligent Internet-connected appliances that you can control from your smart phone—and not gotten very far. A few of these things have caught on, like smart thermostats. But it’s harder to convince people they need their stoves and refrigerators on the Internet.

This year, however, the Internet of Appliances has gotten smarter, chattier, and cuter. It learns, talks to you, and it wants to be your friend. And the consumer electronics companies are hoping that you will now—finally—embrace the connected home.

The main force behind this evolution came from the broader tech world outside the consumer electronics industry. This force was the push to create smart personal assistant technology. Such technology constantly listens for a trigger word, then sends the next thing you say to the cloud for analysis; if it figures out you are asking a question or issuing a command, it does its best to respond.

Both Amazon (with its Alexa technology) and Google (with Google Assistant) sell stand-alone digital assistants for the home, and, as Wednesday’s CES press events made clear, have also been working with consumer electronics companies to embed this technology into new appliances. (Apple’s personal assistant Siri just lives on iPhones for now, though a stand-alone gadget is rumored to be in the works.) Right now, Amazon has the lead, mostly because it got its tools for software developers out ahead of Google. But this could shape up to be a Betamax/VHS kind of battle, as companies line up into different camps.

From the CES announcments from companies large and small, a picture is emerging of how these smart assistants will likely be used in the home.

The television, it is clear, will not be the centerpiece of the connected home despite the predictions from earlier years. Instead, as has been true since the beginnings of civilization, the heart of the home will be the hearth. That is, where we cook (and stand staring into the refrigerator wondering what to cook): the kitchen.

The kitchen is where we congregate, leave notes for each other, and get things done. I’m far more likely to think of things I want to tell or ask a virtual assistant while standing in the kitchen than when I’m watching TV—like remind a child about a doctor appointment, add something to a shopping list, even remember I need to order something online (clearly Amazon likes this one). It’s also where my children argue about whose Spotify stream plays on the Sonos; sorting that out is definitely within a smart assistant’s capabilities.

Another thing the consumer electronics companies got right this year is that they’ve stopped talking about lights. Turning lights on and off is not something that is going to make me embrace a connected home; it might be useful, but it’s not the killer app. Talking to my refrigerator—and having it talk back—just might be.

That’s the big picture, now a few product details.

LG announced that its Instaview refrigerator, an appliance with a touch screen display that covers most of the door and can turn transparent to let you see inside, will now run Alexa and can therefore act as the hub for the home assistant. The company didn’t announce pricing, but last year’s non-Alexa model sells for around US $4000.

For people who don’t want to replace their refrigerator, LG introduced a little countertop Alexa controller; company spokespersons call the LG Hub Robot a robot, but it doesn’t actually do much of anything physical, rather, it just orders other LG appliances around—like its clothes washer, oven, and robot vacuum—and look cute. A note about that vacuum—LG says it’s new robot vacuum is smart enough to know the difference between the legs of a person and the legs of a chair—and it will tell the person to move out of the way. No comment on how it handles sleeping pets. LG also announced that it has a robotic lawn mower in the works.

Samsung likewise updated its Family Hub refrigerator with smart assistant features. (Samsung’s refrigerator has a large touchscreen like LG’s, but the screen doesn’t turn transparent.) As usual, it took the opposite path from rival LG, going with Google technology to power what it calls Samsung Voice. Samsung plans to offer Family Hub as an option in all its French door style refrigerators going forward.

Griffin, better known as an iPhone accessories company, introduced a Connected Toaster; right now, said a Griffin spokesman, it’s just app controlled, but moving over to Alexa control is definitely something the company has on its radar. The $99 gadget allows you to create and save “toast profiles” for the different kinds of bread you use.

And, when you finally get out of the kitchen, the $249 Zeeq pillow from Rem-Fit lets you ask Alexa how loud you’ve been snoring (and other things about the quality of your sleep).



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